September 11, 2013

Editorial: If Haley doesn’t need to reimburse state for NC trip, the law needs changing

The following editorial appeared in The (Columbia) State on Sunday:

The following editorial appeared in The (Columbia) State on Sunday:

State law puts governors in a box when they run for re-election: They must be accompanied at all times by state-provided security, but they can’t use state resources for campaigning. The usual solution is to reimburse the state for the cost of the security — an expense over which they have no control but, in the end, a small cost, compared to the benefits of being governor.

And there can be a thin line between governing and campaigning. Is it campaigning or governing, for instance, when the governor attends a fundraiser for the House Republican Caucus, whose members determine the fact of her agenda? We’re not so sure.

Even so, we believe Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign and the State Ethics Commission are reading the law much too narrowly when they say the governor doesn’t need to reimburse the state for a trip to North Carolina to attend a political event for a group that supports N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory.

They’re fixating on a law that prohibits the use of state resources for candidates’ own election campaigns. Fine. Let’s accept the idea that this event was not related to the governor’s re-election campaign. That still leaves us with the question of whether Gov. Haley was doing the state’s business when she left South Carolina to attend a purely political function for an out-of-state organization.

Certainly that sort of speaking engagement raises the governor’s profile, and might make the governor of North Carolina want to help her with her re-election bid, but it’s hard to get from there to “official state business.”

And state officials aren’t supposed to use state resources for anything other than official state business. The state constitution prohibits the use of public funds for private purposes. The state budget says salaries are full payment for officials’ work, and that perks are prohibited unless specifically listed. And the State Ethics Act makes it a crime to use public resources for a personal “economic benefit” valued at $50 or more. We usually think of an “economic benefit” as something that puts money in your pocket, but it also can mean being able to skip paying for something.

We assume the governor would reimburse the state if she were told she had to, so what’s more disturbing than her use of state resources for something other than state business is the way the Ethics Commission has handled this. After talking to the governor’s campaign attorney, Ethics Director Herb Hayden overrode his attorney’s judgment that the state needed to be reimbursed. Since the governor has left seven members of the Ethics Commission in holdover status and the other two seats vacant, giving her the unusual power to replace them at a moment’s notice, we can’t help worrying that Mr. Hayden was worried about angering the governor.

Although the governor can’t remove her appointees but for cause, it’s hard to imagine that commissioners appointed on the condition that they fire the director would refuse to do that. Of course, it’s just as hard to imagine a governor trying to get away with such heavy-handed tactics, but it’s easy to conceive of bureaucrats who aren’t willing to take that chance, particularly if they’ve been lawyered into believing this is even a close call.

We don’t think it’s a close call at all. But since others do, we need to add this to the very long list of problems with the State Ethics Act that the Legislature needs to fix. And we need to keep adding all those other problems with the law that become apparent as the gubernatorial campaign continues.

And the governor needs to go ahead and appoint new ethics commissioners, so no one can even imagine that she could be holding up that process in order to bully the ethics police. That, plus the fact that making those appointments in a timely manner is part of her job.

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